|A packed house at tip-off made for one of the best atmospheres Timmons Arena has ever|
had for Furman's 93-59 win over Western Carolina Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
What a difference a year makes.
In the second game of the Southern Conference schedule this season, Furman rang in 2023 on a downer as its 13-game winning streak against Western Carolina ended. In that 79-67 loss in Cullowhee on New Year's Eve, the Paladins had a total of 21 rebounds, two bench points and saw a nine-point second half lead disappear under a decisive 20-3 Catamount run.
In the rematch Saturday at Timmons Arena, Furman showed off a serious case of "new year, new me." The Paladins matched their season-high with 53 rebounds, had 27 bench points and never lost the lead after scoring the first 14 points of the game.
Saturday's game got a bit of a late start as the preceding women's game ran a bit long. That just gave fans a longer window to get to their seats. By the time tip-off arrived, sold out Timmons Arena actually looked like a sell out. It was packed and the crowd was loud. After the lights came back on following the introduction of Furman's starters, Paladins' coach Bob Richey kind of gazed at the crowd and soaked it in.
"I've been here since 2011 and I've never seen it like that. I've seen some good crowds in here. There's no doubt. But I'm convinced that's the most people I've ever seen in this arena in pregame," Richey said. "It just seemed like there were people everywhere. It's just fun when you get that type of atmosphere, but it's like I told the team before we went out there, 'go give them something to cheer for. ... If you play hard, they'll get into it.' Give our guys credit because they did. Our defensive focus was incredible to start the game.
"They (Western) can really put a lot of stress on your defense. For us to be able to hold them to 59, that's a credit to our defense and that's what's different. This team has always been good, but the reason we've been able to to get to where we have a chance to be an elite, championship team is the defensive focus and the rebounding. We've just grown so much in that area. ... In Cullowhee, they just drove us all night long and just shot layup after layup after layup. Tonight, we we're able to sit down and guard the ball and, for the most part, did it a little more cleanly in the second half without fouling."
Playing in front of a sold-out crowd that's as hyped as Saturday's was can sometimes make for a nervous, sloppy start. Not Saturday. Not for this bunch of Paladins (21-6, 12-2) that have raced out of the starting gate for much of its eight-game winning streak. Much like it did in avenging its earlier loss to UNC Greensboro, Furman was dialed in on both sides of the floor from the start.
In that win at UNCG on Jan. 29, the Paladins led 16-5 four minutes into the game. On Saturday, they led 14-0 four minutes in. Marcus Foster's three-pointer made it 9-0 and forced a Western timeout, but that didn't stem the tide. After Mike Bothwell converted a three-point play off a feed from Garrett Hien, Bothwell returned the favor with a dish to Hien for a dunk.
"I just want to thank the fans for coming out. It's my last game on a Saturday in Timmons, so for it to be one of the biggest crowds I've seen I'm very thankful and appreciative of our supporters, students and fans in the community," Bothwell said. "It's hard to lose in Timmons when it's like that, so it was really fun."
Furman stretched the lead to 27-10 on Jalen Slawson's jumper midway through the first half before the Catamounts (14-13, 7-7) clawed their way back in it. Western sliced the lead to 35-30 with 2:19 left before J.P. Pegues, Slawson and Foster made layups in the final two minutes to give the Paladins a 41-31 lead at the break.
That's the same amount of points Furman had in the first half at Cullowhee, when it shot 65.2 percent from the floor. On Saturday, the Paladins shot just 42.4 percent in the opening half but there seemed to be a less uneasy feeling than at halftime at Western. Probably because Furman had more rebounds (24) and bench points (10) in the opening half than it did in the entire game in the first meeting.
"I think our composure, which is also connected with your confidence, has gotten way better as this year's gone on. I'm a huge believer that those two things are intertwined. Usually losing composure is a lack of belief. The two go hand in hand. You lose composure because things aren't going your way," Richey said. "When you can play this game with confidence, you can absorb a team's run. You can absorb the run they went on in the first half where they cut the margin down. You've got to stay composed, stay confident and continue to compete. I think that's where this team has really grown."
The Paladins led by eight early in the second half before going on a 17-0 run over a 5:22 stretch to extend the lead to 61-36 with 13:03 left. Furman never led by fewer than 21 the rest of the way. The Paladins had 21 assists and six turnovers while the Catamounts had just two assists and eight turnovers. After getting outrebounded 27-10 in the second half in Cullowhee, Furman won Saturday's rebounding battle, 53-39. That matches the season high in rebounding set in the win over Chattanooga Feb. 1.
Slawson and Foster led five Paladins in double figures with 17 points apiece. Slawson also had eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocked shots. Foster hit 3-of-4 three-pointers for a nice bounce back game. Foster, who ranks second in the SoCon in three-point shooting in league play (43.9 percent), had made just one three over his previous two games.
Perhaps no player symbolized the turnaround this game offered from the first matchup more than Foster, who had no points and one board at Western. He was one of six Paladins with at least five rebounds Saturday as he grabbed seven.
"We've been on a great roll and rebounding well. It really just carried over. Everybody's just been crashing the boards," Foster said. "We looked like a completely different team today (from the first meeting). I can't even believe how far we've come. I'm just so proud of this group."
Bothwell finished with 16 points, three assists, one steal and no turnovers, while Tyrese Hughey and Alex Williams scored 11 and 10 off the bench, respectively. Hughey also had six rebounds. Hien had nine points. Pegues posted seven points, a career-high nine rebounds, seven assists, two steals and just one turnover. Ben VanderWal added six points and seven rebounds. He also drew seven fouls, but hit only 4-of-9 free throws.
Saturday's win ensured that Furman won't be swept by a SoCon opponent this year for the first time since the 2019-20 season. Its the fourth time in the last eight years that the Paladins will have not been swept by any opponent. The last time it happened prior to that stretch was the 1990-91 SoCon regular season championship team.
"The youth of our team has had time to get experience and get better. There's nothing that develops players more than playing. You have to be able to trust that and get film on it. We've been able to see their confidence grow," Richey said. "Our depth is continuing to improve. Five of our nine (players in the rotation) are underclassmen. I don't think they're done improving."
Coming off a 47-point showing in Western's double-overtime win at Wofford, Tre Jackson scored 27 to Saturday to earn SoCon Player of the Week honors. After scoring 30 against the Terriers, Vonterius Woolbright had eight points on 2-of-12 shooting and eight rebounds for the Catamounts, who played without injured leading scorer Tyzhaun Claude.
Next up for Furman is a trip to Charleston Wednesday to take on rival The Citadel at 7 p.m. The Bulldogs (9-18, 4-10) are on a five-game losing streak, but had a solid showing at Samford last time out. Citadel trailed 72-70 with seven seconds left before losing 76-70. Furman won the first meeting against the Bulldogs in Greenville, 97-72, on Jan. 4. Samford and UNCG, who are tied for first place in the SoCon with Furman, face off Wednesday in Birmingham.